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Ideology and agency in protest politics: service delivery struggles in post-apartheid South Africa.

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My aim in this dissertation is to explore the manner in which protest leaders in the post-apartheid context understand themselves and their actions against the backdrop of the socio-historical, political and economic conditions within which protests take place. The aim is to contribute to the debate around the nature of the challenge posed by protest action to the post-apartheid neoliberal order. The study uses an actor-oriented ethnographic methodology to examine at close range the nature of the protest movement in working class South African townships focusing on the so-called service delivery protests. In the quest to understand the action, forms of organisation and ideologies characteristic of the protests, and their significance for post-apartheid society, I use concepts and insights from the literature on social movements, discourse theory and, in particular, Gramsci's ideas on hegemony. The latter helps me to define and assess the threat posed by the protests to the dominant order which I characterise as neoliberalism or neoliberal capitalism. The conclusion that I come to is that the protests are best understood in the context of the transition from apartheid to democracy: its dynamics and its unmet expectations. They represent a fragmented and inchoate challenge to the post apartheid neoliberal order. Their weakness, I argue, partly derives from the effects of the demobilisation of the working class movement during the transition to democracy. It will take broader societal developments, including the emergence of a particular kind of leadership and organisation, for the protests to pose a serious challenge to the present order. The experience of the struggle against apartheid suggests the necessity of a vision of alternatives to inspire, shape and cohere struggles around everyday issues and concerns into struggles for radical society-wide alternatives. Protest action was linked to imagination of a different way of doing things and organising society. Without this link, it is likely that the protest movement will be increasingly isolated and contained with some of its energy used negatively, for example, in populist chauvinism, xenophobic attacks, mob justice, and other forms of anti-social behavior that are becoming a worrisome feature of post-apartheid society. Nonetheless, it provides hope and the foundation for a different future.


Thesis (M.A.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 2011.


Protest movements--South Africa., Social movements--South Africa., Social change--South Africa., Post-apartheid era--South Africa., Demonstrations--South Africa., Theses--Development studies.